Roger Robinson: ‘Poets can translate trauma’


[Many thanks to Teo Freytes for bringing this item to our attention.] Writer and musician Roger Robinson (A Portable Paradise, 2019, Peepal Tree Press) “talks about his prize-winning poetry collection, his Caribbean education and why the death of George Floyd has been felt so strongly in the UK.” Read Anita Sethi’s full interview at The Guardian.

Roger Robinson is a writer who has taught and performed worldwide. His fourth poetry collection, A Portable Paradise, won the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje prize last month, an award for a work evoking the spirit of a place: while his previous books have focused on the memory of the Caribbean, here he turns his gaze on England, unflinchingly portraying a place far from paradise as he tackles topics including the Grenfell Tower disaster, the Windrush scandal, and the legacy of slavery. The collection also won the TS Eliot prize and is shortlisted for the Derek Walcott prize. Robinson was born in Hackney in 1967 to Trinidadian parents and moved to Trinidad aged four, before returning to the UK at 19.

In a manifesto you wrote for The Poetry Review you said: “The poet’s job is to translate unspeakable things on to the page…”
Poets don’t get into poetry for money, they do it for vocation – I feel like that anyway. Poets can touch hearts and minds; they can translate trauma into something people can face. Sometimes there’s a cost for the poet to do that as it takes looking at the trauma right in the face and then allowing others to bear the idea of trauma safely. That’s why I write poetry. Poems are empathy machines.

You talk about traumas passed down through history.
If you look at the history of black and minority ethnic people who have experienced colonialism, they have suffered an immense amount of pain, that pain has disappeared from history books, but is still present even though people don’t talk a lot about it. I don’t beat my son, but I come from a family that did beat their children. People forget where it began but it was passed down from slavery. You can forget the roots of trauma and continue to pass it down the generations. I had to break the cycle.

Your poem Beware in A Portable Paradise feels horribly resonant after George Floyd’s murder (“When police place knees/at your throat, you may not live/to tell of choking”).
I wrote that poem after the death of 20-year-old Rashan Charles [who died after being chased and restrained by police in east London in 2017]. I remember the protests that happened after. As for George Floyd and the protests and riots happening now, how many more black people have to be killed on camera before change happens? As well as this murderous racial trauma, there is also a collective trauma about Covid-19, which is killing black people more, then there’s economic trauma, and a president that’s blatantly trying to start a race war – so what do people expect? It’s been a pressure cooker for so long. There’s a reason people are acting out – the pressure and despair of trying to survive. People shouldn’t divorce the behaviour from the context causing it. It’s a traumatic time. Every time another black person dies the trauma is opened up – I feel it in England. I wanted to look through history and show how black and brown people feel about being devalued. This book has turned out to be horribly resonant in many ways. I don’t want it to be, but I’ll keep on writing until it’s not.

[. . .] What does it mean for you to have won the Ondaatje prize?
The prize allows me more power within the literary industry – that for me is about doing more socially engaged work. It’s time to fill out the role of poetry. I’ve come to prominence recently but have been practising for 25 years. Me and my friend Malika Booker started the writers’ collective Malika’s Poetry Kitchen and I’m so proud of it – it was about making writers visible. I want to continue and develop that activism. I also co-founded Spoke Lab about 12 years ago, providing a space for multicultural writers to “fail again, fail better” as Beckett said – which is important.

What are your influences?
I like an expansive poetic form. I read widely and look at global forms. Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez, José Saramago are influences. I admire Linton Kwesi JohnsonDerek Walcott for his use of English form and Caribbean content. I also access so much good storytelling online; Netflix shows like Top Boy are amazing.

[. . .]  What books have been life-changing? 
Shakespeare. Things Fall Apart. John Steinbeck’s The Pearl. William Faulkner. These books caught my imagination. One day they made all the Trinidadian students write about “a winter’s day”, which we’d never experienced – we had been made to study things irrelevant to us, so the Caribbean Examinations Council brought in their own examinations; we had previously been studying the same syllabus as schools in England. All of a sudden, the literature we were reading was about us. That was a massive change. I read and loved the poet Nicolás Guillén. [. . .]

  • A Portable Paradiseby Roger Robinson is published by Peepal Tree Press (£9.99). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p over £15.

For full interview

[Photo above by Christian Sinibaldi/The Guardian: ‘I like an expansive poetic form’: Roger Robinson, photographed at the Wallace Collection in London.]



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